Al Gabay
The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin
Cambridge University Press, 208pp.

Australian Book Review, February/March 1993, pp. 23-24.

Alfred Deakin became prime minister of Australia three times between 1903 and 1910. “Deakinite” has become a political category to describe a species of small-l liberalism. No other Australian political leader has bequeathed his name to a set of values and practices.

Those ideas are not as popular as they have been. Deakin led the campaign against high-handed direction of Imperial affairs by London. Which of our post-1941 prime ministers has stood up to Washington with similar determination or wit? For example, at the Colonial Conference held in London in 1887, Deakin listened to the Foreign Secretary explain that France had not honoured its treaty concerning the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). This admission prompted Deakin to observe that Australasians might wish “that the evenness of political life in England which sacrificed their interests might be displaced by a chaos which should preserve them.”

Deakin refused all imperial honours except a Privy Councillorship, unlike his confreres Barton, who chased after higher orders of knighthood, and Forrest who ended with the earldom of Bunbury.

In promoting the public good and spurning baubles, Deakin was in pursuit of a greater prize than fellow humans could bestow. He sought unity with the spirit of the universe. None of the existing systems of faith satisfied him so that he spent decades attempting a personal synthesis.

Gabay’s is the third book-length study of Deakin, following Walter Murdoch’s sketch in 1923 and J A La Nauze’s two volumes in 1965. One mark of the new depth to Australian studies is the appearance of multiple books dealing with the same subject, as we have seen around Menzies, although there we still await the definitive life.

When La Nazue was writing his life of Deakin, he would muse how much longer it took to write a biography than a political history because the biographer had to get to know his subject. La Nauze perhaps came to know more about the private Deakin than he considered appropriate to share with his readers. There were topics, especially in the early 1960s, on which a chap did not speak.

Gabay is concerned with the spirit more than with the flesh. The title of one of his chapters is “Out of the Body” and could be taken as a motif for authorial intentions. From La Nauze, and now Gabay we glimpse elements in Deakin’s personality – his girlishness, the school nickname “Dolly”, the atmosphere of home life dominated by competing women.

Judy Brett’s study of Menzies has raised the question of how to relate the inner life with the public stance. One response is to spurn any attempt to link the personality with the political outlook. Faced with the impossible task of interpreting the wellsprings of human behaviour from fragmentary evidence, that no-start can be very tempting. But it does not convince as a precept. A moment’s reflection on our own lives reminds us that there are links between the private and public domains. Although such connections cannot be explicated with ease, to pretend that they do not exist - or are without influence - is to look upon human beings as automatons.

Deakin’s case is different because he left so much evidence – millions upon millions of words – discussing some areas of his inner life. So far as we know from those who have studied these materials, Deakin did not write about his sexual desires or practices, or indeed about his emotional life in the sense associated with love. Nonetheless, an astute reader might bring those concerns to the surface from within his draft books and lectures on religious and moral questions.

For example, Gabay mentions that Deakin woke most days between 4 and 5 am. For anyone who does not go to sleep with the chooks, to wake up at that hour can be a sign of nervous depression. Another writer will take up the theme of Deakin’s “highly strung personality” and contemplate its origins as well as its effects.

Whereas La Nauze set aside Deakin’s Spiritualism when discussing his politics. Gabay succeeds in integrating them. La Nauze considered Deakin’s long fascination with the Eighteenth-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg to be “more inexplicable” than his other intellectual pursuits. Gabay’s own involvement with that mystical system has alerted him to Deakin’s moral motivations without blinding him to the practical politics to which his subject devoted his working life. Readers wil gain as sure an introduction to political impulses from Gabay as from La Nauze.

Throughout the 1890s, Deakin did not chase public office. Was this because he preferred to promote the Federal cause? Or because he was ashamed of his connections with the land-boomers of the previous decade? Or because of his concern with the inner life? That listing of possibilities might once have served as an examination question but its splitting of motivations into sharp alternatives is a poor start to any analysis of personality or character.

Gabay accepts Deakin’s private writings as evidence of a persistent desire to abandon politics for the pulpit. From 1993, when it is difficult to believe politicians when they tell us the time of day, an effort of empathy is essential to accept that so astute a parliamentary manager as “Affable Alfred” was as concerned with the condition of his soul and that of the nation as he was to balance the factions within his shifting coalitions. Yet that seems the case.

No less difficult to appreciate in this era of government by the culturally illiterate is the breadth of Deakin’s reading and the expanse of his writing. For instance, Deakin was versed in French literature and an admirer of Mohamed. In 1889-90, he wrote a 600-page manuscript about Swedenborg, one of several such studies in addition to a spiritual journal and masses of personal prayers.

Gabay writes clearly even when tracking Deakin deep into the swamps of mysticism. His 200-page book is documented and indexed but carries no bibliography. Gabay has done more than explore neglected aspects of Deakin’s outlook. He has revealed how intellectual and political history might be integrated in ways that promise rewards from further investigation of the personal and public domains.